Context & Flair in Product Photography

Pick up your mobile phone and look at it.  What do you see?  If you have one of the latest, ‘trendy’ models, it’s probably made out of aluminium, polycarbonate or plastic, with a glass frontage.  Most mobiles today have a sleek design and are generally aesthetically     pleasing.  

A Product Photographer would take this attractive looking product and make it look beautiful, sexy and dazzling.  They will light the mobile phone (or any other product for that matter), to show off it’s elegant design, the curves and the screen.  It can be shot at a low angle, pointing slightly upward, to give the product it’s ‘hero’ appeal, making it look big or bold. Or depending on the product and advertisement, they may blend the product into the scene, such as an advertisement of a woman applying make-up, etc.

A wine bottle can be lit to enhance the bottle's curves, revealing it's elegance, or beer bottles can have a light shining behind it to make the drink look golden, with the beer head frothed up making it more inviting.

The lighting and post processing methods at the photographer’s disposal can transform the product which can wow the viewer, stir up memories, make them feel a whole array of emotions, or simply reinforce the branding in the mind of the prospective purchaser. A Product photograph can remind them to buy the particular product for a loved one, or just keep the brand registered in the back of their mind.

The excitement and satisfaction in making the ordinary look extraordinary, or just making the ordinary ‘pop’, is what drives me as a photographer. I like to tell a story through my work and hopefully stir a few emotions along the way. I can also just make the ordinary look ordinary, if necessary.

My recent project involved two very beautiful crafted bike models.  

The first, a carved wooden motorbike, to me, started off with the wow factor. It was lighting it with the grid spot and the post work in Lightroom & Photoshop that gave it the extra punch.  I used three different lighting set-ups with a 12 degree, 18cm Honeycomb grid spot and three different post processing methods to get the looks that you can see. I could have also left the bike alone and it still would have been beautiful and that would have been fine.  But the final three images were my vision, to give that bike the enhanced wow factor that I felt it deserved.

Below are the final three photos, plus the bike untouched.

The second bike was described to me as ‘Hell on Wheels’, (fab name), when I picked it up from the antique shop.  Apparently it was part of a series, (I would love to find the others). This bike came with what I can only describe as ‘ some serious oomph’.  It’s distorted, enlarged design, caught my eye and I felt that it had to be photographed.

The lighting was similar to that of the wooden bike, there was only a change in the grid spot angles.  However the post processing differed considerably from the previous bike.  As you can see the bike has a slightly different colour in one photo from the next.  In the ‘Wheel Appeal’ photo, I chose to darken the greens to offset and enhance the red & yellow on the bike and the tone and detail of the wooden foreground, which I wanted to stand out. In the other photo I added some graffiti effects to the background.

For these photos I added certain detail in and lit them in such a way to bring the viewers attention to certain aspects of the bike or to the whole scene.  In the former, I revealed the wooden bikes beauty under different lighting conditions with different styles.  The latter, it was the fun, grungy aspect..

It is the vision of the Product photographer or the client as to what they want to reveal to the viewer.  The story behind the scene, the enticing food or the must have beautiful product.  

The stunning colours in the landscape, the moody portrait and elegant still life photograph. These are the choices the photographer can make, or not, to portray a certain theme or style that will hopefully affect the viewer to feel, to purchase, share, or to think.

Every creative decision, every artistic choice, camera angle and lighting set-up, serves to give context and flair to the ordinary everyday item, or to the stylish and beautiful too.

Creepy or Comic? Dissection of a Still Life Photograph

‘It’s A Clown’s World’ is one of my favourite Still Life photos that I have shot.  

It's A Clowns World

It's A Clowns World

For me, there is visible humour in the clown’s reactions to each other, particularly in the position of the blonde clown on camera right.  I also really like the look that the Clown in the middle is giving the viewer.  It’s almost as if he is thinking, “You find this funny too, right.”  The guy in the box is smiling at the two others on the outside, as if they were his friends, and seems blissfully unaware that he is is trapped.

It’s the being trapped and being laughed at, which provides the creepiness to this image, and also the fact that they are clowns, which as you are probably aware, is a fear for many people on this planet. I am aware that the phobia is called,‘Coulrophobia’.

When I set out to make this photo, I knew that I wanted to create something bizarre. The box’s clear plastic window inspired me to dream up the ‘being caged’ idea.  I was particularly drawn to the pattern around the box and the writing as certainly had a vintage look to it and this only added to my final vision for this Still Life Photograph.

The idea that I came up with, of the clown being stared at in the box, reminded me of late 19th Century Freak Shows and in particular David Lynch’s 1980 film,‘The Elephant Man’, which has always been a favourite of mine.

The setting of the film, the dark, dirty streets of the Victorian East End of London, filmed in glorious Black and White, inspired the tone and the background of my image.

I wanted to create a rough, textured wall and the grimy floor to reflect the dark and oppressive streets and the eerie Freak Show that you see in the film.  

In reality I simply used a dark blue, textured thick wrapping paper for the wall, and I dirtied up some large black tiles for the flooring.  I converted the image to Black and White in Lightroom and added some extra grime to the scene in Photoshop.

The Black and White conversion gave the image the classic, old photo look that I had in mind.  The dark vignette around the edges that you see, works to centre the focus on the characters and it adds a slight oppressive darkness to the space that they inhabit.

The three clowns that you see, in reality is just the one bendable ornament, that I placed in different positions, and then composited the three different shots of the clown together in Photoshop and changed their hair colour in Lightroom.  

I used a grid spot overhead on the left to the light the box and a softbox overhead right, to light the clowns.

I can see how these clowns could be sweet to some people.  They are small, certainly have friendly grins and soft features on their faces. Would I have like them to look more creepy?  Yes, I would have loved to maxed out a total creepy version of this photo. With truly scary looking clowns cackling at the cute one in the box.  I could have used a grid spot to light the two clowns, giving them more of a shadowy darkness to their faces.

However I realise the lighting I chose and these particular clowns were the right choice.  They have their sweet charm and comic stances which gave this photo a lightness that was needed, taking away the ‘Horror’ theme, that I could have gone with.  This photo has a theme that is what I would call, ‘Comically Creepy’.  

 

Just One Light - Uncomplicated Lighting Set-Ups

When it comes to Product & Still Life Photography it is possible to make stunning imagery with just one strobe.  Whether you're using Continuous lighting, a hotshoe mounted flash, a monolight, natural window light or even a table lamp, you can make a bowl of fruit glow with light and colour that you would never find in the fruit aisle of a supermarket.  

If you start out your tabletop photography career with just a table lamp, some tracing paper, some black & white cards (to bounce the light back) you can produce fantastic quality shots of Wine Bottles, Glasses, Food, ornaments... the list goes on.

Even Jewellery photography, which can be very complex and can utilise a gang of strobes in one studio set-up, can be tackled with one light and softbox and bounce cards.

Phillip McCordall, a very experienced, Professional photographer, uses just one overhead strobe in a softbox in this video:

His videos are excellent learning tutorials for any aspiring beginner.  He mainly uses table lamps to show you the process of lighting Bottles, glasses and other stuff.

Another excellent Photographer, Vadim Chiline of EpicMind Studio, takes you through his shot of a cosmetic product using just a grid spot, on his blog.

 

I was using one light for the Carved Wooden Motorbike shots this week.  An 18cm, 20 Degree Grid Spot in various positions, set the tone for me.  Dramatic, moody, mysterious, those were the themes that I had in mind when I started shooting.  I knew that I could achieve this by using a Honeycomb grid.  

The fun part of lighting shots like this is how to light the rest of the bike.  The narrow beam of light that the grid spot provided, did not fill in the areas that remained untouched by the light - the bottom side of the bike facing the camera.  

This is where I used white bounce cards, to light those areas.  Depending on the angle I placed those cards, or if I used a black card to cut out the light, (which I initially did) I can subtly shape the light to my taste.

Want a bit of shadow and contrast near the back, then I would cut out the light with a black card.  A little more light down the front; turn the white card towards it.

In this case, after various set-ups I found that I wanted the side of the bike to be lit evenly, so I evenly place the white bounce cards along the front.

I took three separate shots with the grid spot in different positions and post processed in Lightroom & Photoshop to achieve the three shots I have of the bike.


I think it is just as enjoyable lighting Still Life & Product photography with just one light, it certainly is satisfying finding the correct position for the light and then bringing light back into the shadow areas with the cards.  Just remember to have items to prop the cards up, like wine bottles or stands.